The Illusion of Theory/the Magic of Amateurism

The sub-titling of the upcoming Sweat Lodge show Ashram Couture on Oct. 8, “an evening of amateur choral music” curated by Dave Ruder prompted this long amateur-theory post. What does the term “amateur” mean when we use it in experimental music and theatre at this very moment? (the two general artistic mediums in the Ashram Couture show) Why is this term popping up like a coin pulled from the ear of a little kid? What is meant by, and what are the political implications of different sorts of “amateurism?” How have other artists historically politically, practically conceived of amateurism, and how has amateurism become an “-ism” at all?

My Amateur Theory/Amateur Scholarship

well-known "outsider artist" Henry Darger's 'At Wickey Sansinia They fight their pursuers still nude'

Open. First, the idea of “amateurism” as I explore it here will be pretty darned limited my own context (that should go without saying), it will be as short as possible, U.S centric, seen through a lens of sociology-based performance research, and so on. In terms of geographic context, various German and Dutch collaborators with whom I have recently spoken identify an “amateur movement” on that side of the Atlantic in the theatre sphere, calling it “Crudity,” but that’s a whole other post as those complexities unravel fast and this related moniker needs more specialized attention. Also, I will not be considering the “amateur musician” contests all over the world, which award cash prizes to non-professional musicians, like the Olympics pre-1988. These are parts of other (albeit entangled) production paradigms, another post, another stage, and I won’t be considering American Idol or any other amateur contest, here’s a good article about “Work of Art” [for which I was a preliminary juror in 2010, what a weird experience that was]). I was tempted to include a long rant on public intellectualism but I’ll save that for another time too. Rather, in this post, I’d like to explore the concept of amateurism springing from the interesting titling of this particular show in Brooklyn, full-tilt across artistic mediums, (while maintaining regard for delineations between them, as I think a variety of ways of seeing complement one another and “fracture” otherwise teleological conceptions of amateurism that may or may not be held by any one of us within the horizon of our own medium) and referring to composers, theater-makers, musicians, sculptors, professionals, amateurs, everyone alike using the word “artist.” Sources and further reading materials are cited at the end of this post. Sesame.

amateur prez

What must be said: Amateurism may be initially defined in reference to the practice of an artist who is untrained, unskilled (in a technical sense), or only partially dedicated to his work (a so-called “hobbyist’). The work produced by a practice solely seen as “amateur” is worthless, sentimental at best, laughable garage-sale garbage at worst. Using this distinction alone, we would be lead to ask “how much time or money does an artist need to make to not be an amateur?” which I think is the wrong question for multiple reasons that I won’t go into (because I’m an amateur scholar).

Instead, let’s talk about Amateurism, with a capital “A” and with the “-ism” at the end, and how it’s used. Generally, nouns in English earn their -isms by being identified as a particular way of operating, as delineated by theoretical, ideological, or functional or other “-al” matrices and messy means to various ends. In this case, value judgment, the ultimate magic, must be performed by an authorial party regarding the economic and artistic success of artistic practice in order for bring “amateurism” to emerge from its vague connotational state and become an “-ism.”  Value judgements may be performed along what I perceive as two primary trajectories. Please allow me (for the sake of my sanity at least) to split “Amateurism” into two these two trajectories, or meta-categories: what I’ll call Ideological Amateurism (included Dada, Futurism, Art Brut, etc) and Cultural Amateurism (social and political ways of describing, defining, selling, and theorizing the “inherent” human tendency to make art).

Amateurism and Agency

Let’s save the first meta-category for a moment and look at Cultural Amateurism alone, as constructed historically, economically, and/or sociologically, by dominant academic and contemporary criticism, which has authorized the “-ism” primarily to frame the entrance of teleologically defined “amateur” art into markets and bubbles and record labels and modes of cultural production within the U.S.’ particular brand of hypermimetic capitalism.

Fundamental value systems regarding what is “inside” culture, and what is “outside” culture directly construct Cultural Amateurism almost as a double negative, valuing perceived “Othernesses” via the parameters of its own academia and dominant, self-cognizing culture.

Lead Belly: master musician + "amateur" + artist-as-commodity

Theories about this are prevalent and those to which I subscribe indicate a further semantic categorizing and commodification that serves a convergence of institutional, national, political, and commercial concerns. A great place to see some of these processes operating is in the academic sub-terming of “folk,” “traditional,” “tribal,” “naïve” or “primitive” art, as a separate conceptual cluster from “outsider art,” “Marginal art/Art singulier,” also most recently called “Intuitive” or the politically correct “self-taught” art by various museums, archives, centers, and auction houses. The former cluster contains terms from behaviorialist ethnographers, the NEA, and collectors of strictly catalogued and priced types of amateur art. “Outsider,” on the other hand, is a term coined by Roger Cardinal (after Jean Debuffet, see texts below), belonging more directly to an academic and theoretic sphere. Both of these clusters, let’s call them “folk” and “outsider,” predominantly use the cultural position of the artist to value works of art and attempt to explain why works are valuable, more than simply “amateur” to collectors, museums, and should be included in and used by the Great Memory Theaters of Civilization.

Outsider trajectories assign value to the art-products of culturally, physically and/or mentally “disadvantaged” individuals. Language about this has shifted, but most extremely within this type of amateurism, individual artists are seen as “naïve” or less than self-aware/intentional due to age, ethnicity, cultural background, class, or the artist’s lack of training or “learned ability.” These ideas often emphasize the individual artist’s inability to function, sometimes hinting at “divine inspiration,” and exaggerating autobiographical detail.  Here, we find a selling of the artist herself as a product. For this objectification of the artist to be most efficiently possible, that artist’s agency must be reduced and chalked up to instinctual drives, aberrant behaviors produced by abuse and disease, or self-indulgence of private fetishes, while works themselves are described as “primal,” “pure,” and “childlike.” Any idea or “meaning” present in form or content thus becomes masked by the very fact of the product; under what circumstances the art object was made, and how it was made (via automatic asemic writing, after a lobotomy, while on heroin, etc). This, combined with sentiments regarding “torturous artistic processes” overwhelm the experience of the work itself, or that of the artist, and aborts its operation, political or otherwise. This illusory circumscription of artmaking’s role in human experience to an automatic byproduct of circumstances speaks to an outright negation of the authority of individuals to sensibly express and describe their reality or visions of/for reality.

Adolf Woelfli

Folk art then reaches a similar removal of agency by drawing hard distinctions between nationalities and cultures, fetishizing individuals as pure products of their religious beliefs or valuing art objects as talismans of overarching exotic histories and experiences. Instead of individual artists being seen as cultural anomalies, artists are seen as conduits and/or representatives (symbols) of a culture or way of life. Thus, any idea or “meaning” present in the work is subsumed by the ethnographic “facts” of the culture in which it was made, and agency is again removed from the artist and from the individual work.  While Orientalism, Nativism, and many other “Other-izing” modes are a major concern of postcolonial sociologists and anthropologists, many of those music, visual art, and performance scholars for whom a projection of Otherness is a concern unfortunately end up arguing not for a shift in conception-artist relationships, but rather an inclusion of specific individual artists (in the U.S, individual women, African Americans, members of Appalachian and rural areas, elders) in the dominant “canon.” This usually serves to simply shift this individual artist into the “Outsider” category (i.e autobiographical detail serves to symbolizes/commodifies the individual and his or her work).

always missing michigan...

Both Folk and Outsider ways of valuing artistic work and artists are driven by institutional and market-driven authority to construct the history, identity, and modes of art, to analyze and control its social production, and attempt to encompass its overall operation in human experience. Such dominant amateur/professional schemas can adjust themselves to almost any isolated value, not all of which are “bad bad bad,” there are always arguments for diversity, sustainable tourism, increased access to cultural resources (supplies, space, training), preservation of cultures and languages, and so on, which only sometimes remove agency, or do it by proxy, without intention, or as a function of a flawed overarching conceptual framework of a different ilk.

Amateur Avant-Garde (Italian Futurism, and Fuck Yeah)

So let’s go back to the other meta-category, Ideological Amateurism, the other trajectory along which certain artworks and artistic practiced are legitimized, or authorized via the designation as “Amateur.” This trajectory primarily values having no value, defining “value” in the same way that the above trajectory does. Perhaps artists can claim “real amateur art” now as an umbrella term for a reified, reclaimed “Other;” as any art that rejects dominate modes of production, including the modes of “traditional” art and categorizations on purpose (ideologically) by calling itself “amateur.” In this sense, Amateurism becomes a “movement,” proposed and advocated by artists reacting to or in critique of dominant modes of production.  We can even reify garage sale art, finding love for the ugly, the crude, the disconnected, and the unconsidered, taking it under a culturally anomic wing.

"Amateur society" the Kibbo Kift (

Even ignoring all that complaint about commodification above, and my own institutional engagement in the arts (are we uneducated? No, unpaid, yes!) I might end up with a view of amateurism then as a magically platonic “alternative” to monolithic Occidentalism, patriarchy, classicism, and as a respite from elitism, social oppression, and so on and so forth, a view which certainly brings us back to Jean Debuffet and his original (French accent) art brut, the raw art, COBRA, the punk rock, the beats, the loners, the outcasts, the artists and the queers, fuck yeah. Yet, this is tricky too because at this point in time we may understand too well how a reactionary art movement might co-construct the “inside,” sketching and strengthening its structures via negation (see Walter Benjamin, Frankfurt school et all) and/or become commoditized itself as a sub-culture or “genre.” Perhaps a reactionary stance from an artist such as myself, or any of the Ashram Couture artists, would be too too connected-via-negation to really be considered “outsider” or “amateur.”   It would be a symbolic positioning only.

Henry Flynt reads "From Culture to Veramusment" at Walter De Maria's loft, NY, February 28th, 1963 (the picture is of Mayakovsky) photo by Diane Wakoski

In the avant-garde music world, such ideologically posed “Amateurism” primarily connotes a formally anti-establishment trajectory and there are some great success stories about artists—reactionary or not—operating very effectively (which I define as influencing cultural doxa while staying almost entirely unknown and outside of material culture, and shakin’ things up) for example Irwin Chusid and his The Atrocious Music Hour in the ‘80s, to which some source the birth of irony and the “so wrong it’s right” aesthetic and of course the awesome Henry Flynt (who was brought to my attention by this same curator-of-the-show Dave Ruder) whose influence surges on and is perhaps the inspiration behind this actual show’s subtitling. Read this and this.

"Don Vliet"

Amateurist Practice

While it seems unhelpful to insist that commodification and removal of artistic agency and abortion of a work’s operation is an unstoppable machine, or that cultural anarchism is wholly ineffective as soon as it cognizes itself, or that education removes the “purity” of any “real Amateurism,” (away with such pessimisms and cynicisms I say) I do maintain that consideration of the economic and political implications embedded in “Amateur-ism” can clarify concrete modes of agency for us as (amateur or professional) artists, not just in terms of our work’s operation as a political or ideological voice in a public sphere, but also our in terms of our own ability to make decisions about how we want our work to “operate.” We neither want to confine ourselves inside an “inside/outside” binary, follow the amateur movements of Italian futurism right into the mouth of fascism, nor fail to consider that resurging interest in “folk” movements in Germany were as the beginnings of the rise of fascism while “degenerate art” was seen as the opposite and used to describe all modern art  (nor fail to analyze how American folk and traditionalist movements have not always led us towards more inclusive or less oppressive social structures) etc.

Inside this maze of terminology and temptation, we have the opportunity to experiment with how Amateurism can be both Culturally and Ideologically constructed, and towards this end I advocate methodologies from the political sciences of aesthetics (of course). It is my sense that we seek a kind of de-hierarchized agency, an active, formal situation that is both unreducible to product, and least explainable via theoretical negation or accommodation; I hope that we can find a careful selection of ideas from movements in the avant-garde, from art world rhetoric, from performance studies and social practices, et all over time; from social sculpture and Joseph Beuys’s “EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST,” from social practices, from “documentary” and engaged practices such as Richard Maxwell‘s,  through punk rock through art brut and more, more, more in search of this narrow path between commodifiable autonomy and un-commodifiable non-autonomy. Some interesting forms in a performance context that might make this type of “Amateurism” work now include:

1.)   open-end or improvisational scoring/text (anyone can interpret and perform a work)

2.)   collaboration across disciplines and ways of thinking about art

3.)   “audience” participation, audience-led performance, or audience-performed work.

4.)   No rehearsal, stream-of-consciousness, or other “intentional lack of consideration”

5.)   Inclusion of those who consider themselves non-artists, or work by individuals who do not consider themselves professional artists (self-defined amateurs)

6.)   Lack of monetary gain for the artists and/or lack of institutional involvement.

What else?

60 kids singing their favorite songs, taught using Carl Orff's methods

These elements, taken from the pieces to be performed at the Ashram Couture show and from recent self-proclaimed “amateur” work, do indicate a kind of aesthetic amateurism as well as ideological and cultural sorts. In their light, I am excited to align theories of and advocacies for Amateurism with participatory modes, collaborative performance, and music, all at once. There is a lot of experimentation to be done in interactive art and “public” groups of amateurs, collaboration with self-titled non-artists, and in the development of an Amateur Avant-Garde, which is constructive rather than reactionary. In the work of choral cohorts Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Dave Kadden, Brian McCorkle, et all, I am excited about amateurism as Öffentlichkeit, amateurism as collective action, and as inclusive organization. These are the tricks that comprise the act itself.

Ashram Couture: An Evening of Amateur Choral Music
October 8, 8pm

Exapno New Music

33 Flatbush Ave., 5th Floor
Brooklyn, NY

L’Art brut préféré aux arts culturels byJean Debuffet
Blinded Insight: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of The Mentally Ill by Hal Foster
Futurism and politics: between anarchist rebellion and fascist reaction By Günter Berghaus
Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (World of Art) by Colin Rhodes
Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond by John Maizels and Roger Cardinal
Outsider Art  by Roger Cardinal
Self taught, outsider, and folk art
by Betty-Carol Sellen, Cynthia J. Johanson
Testimony: vernacular art of the African-American south : the Ronald and June Shelp collection, by Kinshasha Conwill
Pictured in my mind:contemporary American self-taught art
from the collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen
Everyday genius: self-taught art and the culture of authenticity by
Gary Allen Fine
Art Brut by Michel Thévoz
The Raw and The Cooked, by Claude Levi-Strauss

Other Random Resources from the Grand Amateur Index, the Internet:

Outsider Art Fair
Raw Vision magazine
INTUIT: The center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

9 warning signs of being an amateur artist
Outsider Art Pages (built environments)



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